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Facebook is the leading cause of attacks on refugees in Germany

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August 21 · Issue #191 · View online
The Interface
The open rate for yesterday’s newsletter was about half the usual rate. If you didn’t get it, please let me know so I can investigate.
Recently I ran into a well known tech CEO and asked him how he was feeling about social networks. (I am extremely fun at parties.) The CEO’s unequivocal response surprised me: “shut them down,” he said. His reasoning was simple: the networks undermine democracies in ways that cannot be fixed with software updates, he said. The only logical response, in his mind, was to end them.
Whether social networks can be fixed is the question looming over Amanda Taub and Max Fisher’s deeply unsettling new report in The New York Times. The report, based on academic research and bolstered by extensive on-the-ground reporting, finds a powerful link between Facebook usage and attacks on refugees in Germany:
Karsten Müller and Carlo Schwarz, researchers at the University of Warwick, scrutinized every anti-refugee attack in Germany, 3,335 in all, over a two-year span. In each, they analyzed the local community by any variable that seemed relevant. Wealth. Demographics. Support for far-right politics. Newspaper sales. Number of refugees. History of hate crime. Number of protests.
One thing stuck out. Towns where Facebook use was higher than average, like Altena, reliably experienced more attacks on refugees. That held true in virtually any sort of community — big city or small town; affluent or struggling; liberal haven or far-right stronghold — suggesting that the link applies universally.
The most striking data point in the piece: “wherever per-person Facebook use rose to one standard deviation above the national average,” the authors write, “attacks on refugees increased by about 50 percent.”
From there, the authors explore why this happens. They examine how Facebook promotes more emotional posts over mundane ones, distorting users’ sense of reality. Towns that had been relatively welcoming to immigrants eventually came to encounter an overwhelming tide of anti-refugee sentiment when they opened the Facebook app.
Much of this activity is driven by so-called “superposters,” who flood the service with negative sentiment. This asymmetry of passion makes it appear as if refugees have less support than they actually do, which in turn inspires more people to gang up against them.
One of the most notable features of the study, which you can read in its entirety here, is how it determines that Facebook is uniquely responsible for the surge of anti-immigrant violence in Germany. Here are Taub and Fisher again:
German internet infrastructure tends to be localized, making outages isolated but common. Sure enough, whenever internet access went down in an area with high Facebook use, attacks on refugees dropped significantly.
And they dropped by the same rate at which heavy Facebook use is thought to boost violence. The drop did not occur in areas with high internet usage but average Facebook usage, suggesting it is specific to social media.
Also notable: these attacks happened despite strict laws against hate speech in Germany, which require Facebook to take any offending posts down within 24 hours of being reported. As the authors note, the posts driving the violence largely do not qualify as hate speech. The overall effect of standard political speech has been to convince large swathes of the population that Germany is beset by a foreign menace — which triggered a political crisis in the country earlier this year.
In New York, Brian Feldman says Facebook has two choices:
It can do more to limit user speech on posts that are not explicitly hateful but couched in the rhetoric of civil discussion — the types of posts that seem to fuel anti-refugee violence. Or it can tweak its distribution mechanisms to minimize overall user engagement with Facebook, which would also reduce the amount of ad money it collects.
Surprisingly, Facebook declined to comment on the study or its implications. But even as it was still reverberating around the internet, the company was getting ready to answer for another set of concerns: four new influence campaigns linked to Russia and Iran. From my story:
Facebook removed more pages today as a result of four ongoing influence campaigns on the platform, taking down 652 fake accounts and pages that published political content. The campaigns, whose existence was first uncovered by the cybersecurity firm FireEye, have links to Russia and Iran, Facebook said in a blog post. The existence of the fake accounts was first reported by The New York Times.
“These were networks of accounts that were misleading people about who they were and what they were doing,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a call with reporters. “We ban this kind of behavior because authenticity matters. People need to be able to trust the connections they make on Facebook.
People indeed ought to be able to trust the connections they make on Facebook. But between the study of Facebook’s effects on Germany and news of multiple ongoing state-sponsored attacks on the service, it was hard to say where that trust could come from.
“When you operate a service at the scale of the ones that we do, you’re going to see a lot of the good things, and you’re going to see people abuse the service in every way possible as well,” Zuckerberg told reporters. And yet the thing that troubled me most today wasn’t the people abusing the service. It was the Germans using Facebook just as it was intended to be used.

Democracy
Facebook is rating the trustworthiness of its users on a scale from zero to one
Facebook Pushes Back on Reporting About its User Trust Ranking
Facebook Is Removing More Than 5,000 Ad Targeting Options To Prevent Discrimination
On the frontline of India's WhatsApp fake news war
New Russian Hacking Targeted Republican Groups, Microsoft Says
Jack Dorsey On Deleting Tweets, Banning Trump, And Whether An Unbiased Twitter Can Exist
Twitter Gets Powerful Win in “Must-Carry” Lawsuit–Taylor v. Twitter
Number of Third-Party Cookies on EU News Sites Dropped by 22% Post-GDPR
Line is another chat app rife with spam, scams, and bad information. The volunteer-supported Cofacts is fact-checking them in the open
How misinformation spreads on Line — one of the most popular messaging apps in Southeast Asia
Elsewhere
Say ‘Aloha’: A closer look at Facebook’s voice ambitions
Schools Are Mining Students' Social Media Posts for Signs of Trouble
Slack raises $427 million, now valued above $7 billion
Launches
Tinder is rolling out a college-only service, Tinder U
Google is developing an experimental podcast app called Shortwave
Takes
Advertising is obsolete – here's why it's time to end it
Facebook and Twitter aren’t liberal or conservative. They’re capitalist.
And finally ...
Donald Trump Jr.’s Instagram Is a Shakespearean Tragedy
Talk to me
Send me tips, questions, comments, academic studies: casey@theverge.com.
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